Braid: Memories and References

I’m not sure why, but although I have a fairly wide variety of game genres that I play, games such as Braid rarely make it into the rotation.  I played plenty of side-scoller and top down games when I was younger, but it’s unusual for me to play one anymore.  That is not to say that I dislike Braid however.  Quite the opposite, it struck me as different and intriguing right off the bat.  The first thing that struck me, however, was the feature to rewind or fast forward.  Obviously that would be one of the first things that any new player would notice in the game.  But this is a really specific feature that I love seeing in games- I think I get that from having played Life is Strange.  It’s a mystery story about a girl named Max who discovers she has the ability to rewind time and now has an opportunity to solve and stop a kidnapping.  It’s honestly one of the most emotionally charged games I’ve ever played and I was quite pleased to see such a similar gameplay mechanic show up in Braid.

Besides that, though, I’ve really enjoyed Braid‘s storytelling style so far.  It takes the archetypal Mario story and adds its own little time-bending puzzle twist. I also appreciate the many references the game makes, not only to other video games, such as Mario and Donkey Kong, but to other media and/or literature.  For example one level title, “There and Back Again,” references The Hobbit.  I suppose I just really enjoying seeing a self-aware game.

Overall, I’m enjoying the way Braid tells its story as well as the challenge it presents in its puzzles.

How to Play Braid: Cheating, Completion, & Company

Talking about Cheating, Therapy, and Completion in the post-modern platforming game Braid

The question every gamer has debated when stuck on the last challenge of a level: to cheat or not to cheat? Usually the idea of whether to cheat is usually understood in terms of entertainment: on one hand, cheating allows you to get past a part of the level that would otherwise take an additional three hours to complete ; on the other hand – as people claim – cheating ruins the fun since what’s the point of a game if you just cheat? (I would respond with saying that a game’s entertainment and narrative value is diminished when a player is simply unable to complete one aspect of 1000 that a game may comprise of- but this is for a separate debate). The question of cheating in Braid is significantly more complicated because both mechanics and the difficulty of using the mechanics to complete the puzzles add to the narrative; as such, one should ask whether cheating in Braid takes away from the narrative of the game.

Braid Walkthrough
Any game is easy with enough Google searches

At first, I believed the answer was simple: no, cheating diminishes the narrative, so I should not cheat to play Braid. Part of the narrative in the game is facing one’s trauma and not letting it control your life; the difficulty in getting puzzle pieces – the literal puzzle pieces that the character puts together in order to understand what happened in his past – mirrors the difficulty in facing traumatic events. As such, since cheating would relieve the difficulty, it would also lower the empathy one feels for the character and his difficulty with trauma, and as such should not be encouraged.

However, upon thinking again, I have a new belief. I think that on a meta level, cheating is sometimes acceptable in Braid. One of the common themes of trauma is needing support to help face it, and so video walk-through for a puzzle piece that one just simply cannot get could act as a metaphor for admitting help with trauma. As such, cheating as a last resort could fit with the game’s overall narrative. Maybe that’s part of why it is so hard, since the developer wanted people to work together to put the pieces together.

Another interesting video game mechanic that Braid uses is allowing its players to walk through the level with very little difficulty. The ease of simply breezing through life without reflecting on your past is literally displayed with the level design; yet the character cannot reach the true realization found on the top level or complete the game without getting the puzzle. Thus, using only mechanics and not narrative, it shows us how shallow and halting it is to simply walk through the motions of life without putting the pieces of your psyche together.

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A very easy level for the un-reflective player

Finally, I think that the game’s mechanics makes it a great game to play with others, which allows the narrative of trauma to have another layer of meaning. As I said earlier, if cheating is like using a therapist, then playing with others is like being in a group therapy session. It reminds you that even if you cannot put the pieces of trauma together yourself, you are both not alone in your confusion and have friends to rely on.

My semester blog will give hints to why my account’s is EveryMinorDetail; this is my Easter egg, with the egg being the piece of art that I am referring to. This week’s hint is: Color & Light

Braid, WHY YOU (sic) SO HARD!

I must admit, I don’t play online games very much. The last time I played a “legitimate downloadable game was when I was about 13- a game based on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Other than that, my extent on gaming are mostly non-fictitious gaming titles, such as the Madden NFL Series. However, I have delved into the world of Halo when I used to play Halo Wars quite often. This game seemed noticeably different right from the start. Fairly quickly, you can tell that there is going to be a puzzle/strategic objective to the game when you find that your main objective is to collect puzzle pieces. Furthermore, once noticed that it’s a puzzle of usual means (putting actual pieces together), you’ll also eventually notice that there are quips here and there that add to the complexity of the game. Being used to just pressing X, Y, A, or B- having to deal with rewinding the game in ORDER to successfully complete each task was certainly not an easy task. In fact, I found that to be one of the more challenging aspects of Braid.

In being such a difficult game, my mind wandered to an academic write-up by Jesper Juul on the topic of what indeed makes up a game. Specifically, I thought of  the part referring to this idea of pleasure versus challenge. What is an appropriate ratio of pleasure, or- in better terms, level of easiness, accessibility and challenge. I mean, I would want a game to be challenging so that there is some worthwhile experience while paying the game, but making one so hard that it, again- at least for me, seemed nearly impossible to complete? That just didn’t seem sensible. Juul wrote, “Playing a game is an activity of improving skills in order to overcome these challenges, and playing a game is therefore fundamentally a learning experience.” I don’t mean to barrage you with quotes are academic jargon, but Juul went on to say that gaming is also a progression. Essentially, a game is needs to be challenging, yes, but not so that there can be no progression, no learning.

I will say that even if you are not an experienced gamer like I am, you may be able to tell that the narrative seems a bit grey. I mean, it’s basically the premise of almost every fantastical game in the history of the world. That is, a man trying to save a princess. You’ll notice there’s more to that- but I won’t give anything away.

Overall, I’m glad this was one of the first games I’ve played, as I’ve appreciated the level of difficulty of how some games could be- something that I think Juuls would appreciate as well.

 

 

 

 

Time and Perfection in Braid

I am a perfectionist in many aspects of my life. Perfection can mean many different things in a game though. Is it never making a mistake, or being able to fix your mistakes when you do make them? Is it finding every easter egg, puzzle piece, or extra point? Is it completing the game in as little time as possible and getting achievements? Is it playing every level and moving on as quickly as possible, or solving every puzzle in the level to advance the story further? Perfection can be any or all of these things. Personally, I like to advance through levels as quickly as possible much like how I read very quickly. This speed allows me to see every chapter or level and discover how the story ends as soon as I can. I constantly move forward and only go back if I need more collection items to move forward or if there was a particularly interesting puzzle I want to try to solve.

Braid allows you to explore the idea of rewinding time and doing something over and over again until you reach perfection. This repetition becomes almost an obsession with finding every single puzzle piece and completing every level fully, similar to the obsession the character has with erasing every mistake and finding his princess in the next castle. As soon as the character dies or fails to complete a puzzle you can shift backwards in time to act as if the mistake never happened. Every move can be repeated over and over and over again until you finally learn what to do and can jump across that gap or use your own shadow to pull a lever.

If you ignore this obsession with perfection and your ability to rewind time you can quickly progress through the levels without much trouble. The real difficulty in Braid, and where my team often got stuck, is in the puzzle pieces hidden behind elaborate puzzles that require you to rewind time again and again to solve them. We often ended up moving on to the next level without spending the extra time to challenge ourselves more and fully complete the level. Since we skipped a large number of the puzzle pieces, we were left with missing pieces to the story and could not fully experience everything the game wanted to show us. We could not experience as much of the frustration of repeating an action over and over again until perfection. It caused us to miss some of the point of the story and the complexity of the levels. The missing puzzle pieces left our image of the narrative and the game incomplete.

In order to experience the entire story of Braid you must have the skill and patience to truly perfect every level. This makes it so that more casual gamers can’t fully enjoy the game because the levels start out difficult and only get harder as the game progresses. Much like the character seeks to avoid the mistakes he has made searching for the princess by rewinding time again and again the player has to seek to avoid their own mistakes. This often requires more skill and patience than I have.

My team and I also did not originally realize just how important the puzzle pieces were to the story and by the end the puzzles were so difficult that we could not solve them. If you can achieve perfection though, Braid rewards you by hiding a secret ending in plain sight that can only be accessed by collecting eight stars hidden even deeper in the levels than the puzzle pieces. Even when you think you have reached the end by collecting every puzzle piece, you haven’t. For the few that can reach the hidden ending, the story changes significantly, pointing to an unreliable narrator whose quest for perfection and manipulation of time ruins everything around him. By truly achieving a perfect game you find an even worse ending than you would if you just stopped once you found all of the puzzle pieces.

Playing by the Rules

A player can cheat at any game. In video games, this might take the form of exploitable bugs, devices like GameSharks, and watching walkthroughs to maneuver around a difficult puzzle or anticipate the ramifications of an in-game decision. While the drawbacks of cheating in multiplayer games or competitions are obvious – cheating gives a player an unfair advantage over others and ruins the spirit of the competition – the impact that cheating can have on a one player game’s experience became controversial during our class discussion on Thursday. In the context of a puzzle-heavy game like Braid, the challenging gameplay is a deliberate part of the gamer’s experience: frustration, repetition, and forcing the player to look at a problem in new ways gives the player a great sense of satisfaction when they finally crack the puzzle, even if it is hours later. If the player is ultimately unable to complete the puzzles, or is too impatient or lacks the time to master the various mechanics, then they will ultimately never complete the game’s story. In the high fantasy rpg Dragon Age: Inquisition, decisions made by the player impact political alliances, the loyalty of allies, and can have life-or-death consequences for characters in the game. One wrong decision can dramatically affect the player’s story and the outcome of quests. In both types of games, a player may choose to use walkthrough guides to reach a desired outcome: completion of a puzzle or a particular plot line. If no competition is involved – if nothing is on the line but the single player’s experience – then why does the suggestion of cheating raise such strong feelings in others?

When we recommend games to our friends, we want to share with them a particular experience that was memorable, exciting, or even heartbreaking. I frequently recommend Undertale to my friends and sometimes buy or loan it to others, but with one rule: if it’s your first time playing, you can’t consult walkthroughs, watch Let’s Plays, or “spoil” the experience in any way. This isn’t even a rule that I myself adhered to my first time playing: before I ever bought the game, I was so curious about it that I read several articles and watched some gameplay. I ruined many plot twists for myself and, as a result, my game experience felt inferior to that of my friends who went in without prior knowledge. I’ve since experienced the game vicariously through the fresh experiences of my friends. In my first playthrough, by knowing too much about the game I had effectively cheated – but I affected no one’s enjoyment but my own.

Continue reading “Playing by the Rules”

Unhappy Ending: Art Isn’t Always Fun

During our discussion in class today about Braid, one student made the astute observation that, while the game is sometimes so difficult it isn’t even fun, perhaps that’s the point. As the class delved into Jonathan Blow’s opinions on video games, I thought back to another game in which I had experienced this sort of “harsh art” and thought that perhaps this is yet another sign that video games are truly maturing as an art form.

One of the first games I played on my PS4 was a short, narrative-driven walking simulator (a term which is often used pejoratively, though I’ve taken to reappropriating it for ambient aesthetes of all media) called Firewatch. This gorgeously rendered, slow-paced, and emotionally sapping game is without a doubt a piece of art; indeed, it is so narratively focused that I almost wouldn’t call it a video game at all but rather an immersive movie.

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Firewatch places you in the eyes of a lonely man whose wife has begun to suffer from early onset dementia. As she begins to forget who he is, he takes to the woods to escape depression, applying for a summer position as wildfire lookout for the US Forest Service. Throughout the game, the player is forced to choose between suboptimal and morally questionable paradoxes. You are never allowed, in other words, to be completely happy with your decisions, as there is no best option.

I of course won’t spoil Firewatch‘s wonderful story (and if any of my classmates would like to play it, they are free to do so on my console, as it’s only a 2-4 hour game). All I will say is that the ending was, for me, quite disappointing. Indeed, it was an intentional letdown.

So back to Braid‘s at times frustratingly difficult puzzles. If Jonathan Blow was seeking to make some sort of commentary on video games, in their predictably satisfactory endings and linear progression, I believe he succeeded. In the same vein, Firewatch‘s creators gave us an antihero whose climactic ending is but a quiet disappointment.

So why would we play games that are, in some respect, unenjoyable? Because in all seriousness—in terms of giving me pleasure, both Braid and Firewatch would be considered failures. But this is precisely why I feel that video games are coming to a certain level of maturity, that they might have the ability to deliver unto players something other than dopamine. Reading Lolita isn’t fun at all; neither is listening to Schoenberg’s expressionist music or reading Ginsberg’s bleak poetry. What these works do give us is a taste of some real or hyperreal fantasy in which feelings we all recognize but shudder to behold are thrust out, into our faces. And in looking at them in the light, perhaps we gain some consolation in knowing that at least, we are not alone in fearing them.

Fiction and Reality

Starting off with Braid, we are faced with a very familiar looking platform game. While in the beginning, the game seems to be a take on the Super Mario Brothers game, as we delve deeper, we see that Jonathan Blow has used the seemingly simple platform to tell a far more modern and complex story. As with any platform game, the player goes through a series of levels to complete challenging puzzles. However, Blow’s placement of books at the beginning of each ‘world’ offer a much more exciting gameplay narrative, which gets increasingly complicated and ambiguous as the game progresses. The plot follows the story of Tim, who seems to have made a mistake regarding the princess and is trying to get her back. Each world gives us some hints as to what had happened. As I was reading through the description of the game, I was very surprised to see that they called it a “non-linear” game. This came as a big surprise as platform games, by nature, are linear. But as I played through the first couple of worlds, the presence of the books and the ambiguity present in the narrative of the game clearly pointed to a non-linear plot.

While being a story very similar to that of Super Mario Brothers, the game has a very self-reflective nature. Several themes of forgiveness, frustration and regret are scattered throughout the plot of the game creating some tension between reality and fiction. One thing related to this I found very striking was the fact that Tim seemed very out of place in the setting of the game. While the game is set in a place with castles and magic, Tim is dressed in a suit. At several points in the game, it felt as if the game was a way for Tim to escape the tragic reality and trauma of what he has gone through, especially when the different powers he gets aid him to redo many of his steps. I thought this was very point as often gamers play games to escape reality and the fact that the protagonist of the game is doing the same made for a very interesting experience.

A solid break from stress and “Legion”

I think the moment I realized that I had gotten really into the game was when I stepped out of the Towers West Lounge and thought about walking backward to turn back time out of curiosity. That HUNT! puzzle killed me.

I admit that I didn’t spend as much time playing the game as my partner Katherine, but I did sit down and had the great pleasure of trying to wring out puzzle pieces and completion from worlds 4 and 5. The double lever shadow puzzle also killed me.

 

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I wasn’t particularly gripped with the story. I know the game came out a while ago, but I was dissuaded by the very tell-centric nature of delivering the narrative. I didn’t feel like I was playing through the story as much as just playing a puzzle game and reading about some aspects of the story every new world. As a creative writer and otherwise fiction analyst, I find that, especially with interactive media, it is so very interesting to be able to tell a game’s story through the actual game. Sometimes for games I don’t play, I look at cinematics to learn some parts of the story, and especially for fighting games it’s amazing to me how much story they can fit into fighting sequences. Considering that example is a fairly limited form of the video game medium for show-centric story, it seems almost cheap for a game like this to skimp completely out of showing and just rely on the several books at the beginning of each new world.

Nonetheless, I was thoroughly intrigued by the game, and I was so fascinated by the repetition of puzzles and the way they simply used newer mechanics to make the repeated puzzles less…repetitive. Adding new mechanics was a really fun way of taking puzzles that previously were fairly trivial and making us have to rethink them and really wrack our brains for good solutions. Still looking at you, HUNT!.

More on the mechanics – not a lot of games switch up mechanics midway through the game. Sure, you might be able to acquire new abilities or weapons that supplement the skills you’ve already developed, but I think a major part of the difficulty of Braid was encountering these new mechanics early on and needing to simply engage with them and figure them out as you were solving the puzzles. While the base skills remain the same (sure, the jumping and time rewinding), you fairly rapidly have to be able to integrate these new skills and at least attempt the puzzles with possibly underdeveloped feelings for how the mechanics will work.

One of the biggest preventions of that making me give up on this game experience was the fact that I could go through the game without actually needing to solve all of these crazy puzzles immediately was a major drawing point for me to this game. I’m not a huge platformer guy, and I like puzzle games, but mostly just on mobile devices. Despite all of this, I found Braid incredibly easy to get into and stay into due to my ability to move on from one puzzle to the next if I found myself stuck on one for more than twenty minutes.

Overall, I thought the game was incredibly intuitive and thoroughly enjoyable, through the difficulty. I probably wouldn’t finish the game by myself, but I thought that figuring out the puzzles that I did was particularly rewarding and I enjoyed the experience a lot. Even though I failed several puzzles. And I didn’t realize how to finish the purple lion puzzle. It was late and I had had some champagne, okay?

New Clarity in Memory: How Braid Forces Us to Wade Through the Past

Our initial experience in the world of Braid may leave us with an impression of simplicity and straight-forwardness. We move to the right of the screen, like most platformers, and are greeted with a scenic backdrop and the promise of challenging levels and puzzles to solve. This sense changes as soon as we begin opening books and piecing together puzzles. As with any memory that we have, Tim’s memories become more convoluted and complicated the more that we delve in to them, and what seemed simple on the surface soon becomes an intertwined drama of perceptions of the past.

The first books that greet us in the game appear basic enough. Tim has made a mistake. Tim must rescue a princess from a monster. Tim’s memories have become muddled since he lost the princess.

As the books become less about exposition, they delve in to philosophical questions about romance, forgiveness, memory, and trust. It is easy to write off some of these notes as precursors of the powers that Tim will gain, but we should not be so hasty. Sure, one of the first books may tell us that we will be “rewarded for the learning, rather than punished for the mistake,” and this plays in well with Tim’s initial abilities to play back time, but there is much more at play here.

Each of these books gives us a small piece of Tim’s past, and, as we complete the puzzles, we are shown even more. This allows the player to construct his or her own narrative from the very basic pieces of the story that we are given. Players will move through the game with their own conception of how the narrative will play out, but as more books are unlocked, we are constantly challenged to redefine and reexamine the past that we have created in our heads.

For instance, our conception of the princess is entirely shaped by Tim’s interactions with the books, and the more he reveals about his idea of the princess, the more we are asked to redefine our own interpretation. Because of this, it is entirely reasonable for a player to revisit old levels and books to incorporate our new understanding with what we thought we had a hold on.

This sort of storytelling is very much unique to this sort of medium. While other styles of art have the potential for the viewer to return to older points to make sense of the present, the books in Tim’s world serve as constant pieces of the narrative that have to be returned to and pondered over, much like our own human memories, in order to be completely understood.

This effect is compounded by the player’s ability, in many instances, to completely skip any conflict in levels and move on, undeterred by the past. In order to fully complete the game though, we are forced to continually return to past levels and revisit the narrative from new perspectives. Many levels cannot be beat until later pieces of the puzzle have been acquired, asking the player to run past the sets of books many times and contemplate how all of the information fits together.

The answer to this question, is in the title. Memory in Braid is an overlapping and tangled blend of reality and perception that the player and subject must traverse, constantly learning new information only to the realization that it disproves what we took for granted. Past thoughts and new information overlap and twists together throughout the narrative, weaving the sort of  story structure that is only possible in this format. Much like our own memories, the more we revisit and reexamine the pieces of information in Braid, the more convoluted and intertwined the narrative becomes, and we realize how much individual recollections are influenced by perception rather than reality.

A game as art vs art as a game

I’ve created art since I was five years old. I studied seriously with a professional painter for ten years after that. However, I still hesitate to make the statement “I’m an artist.” For one, it’s a loaded term that implies a lot of grandiosity and arrogance. Mostly though, I don’t want to be identified as an artist alone, because I also happen to be a major techie nerd.

I started taking Computer Science classes my sophomore year and have been hooked ever since. But since then I’ve spent many semesters taking both computer science and art classes, anxiously switching back and forth trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, let alone what to major in.

For so long it seemed like there was no choice but to make a choice. Art and Science, I was taught from day one, were on opposite ends of a philosophical, academic, and professional spectrum. You were either one or the other kind of thinker and personality: creative or analytical, emotional or rational, passionate or cool headed. In figuring out what to do with my future, I thought the first thing I needed to do was choose between the technology or creative arts industry.

But then I discovered video games. It was pretty revelatory for me to find this whole growing field of work that was entrenched in both worlds that held possibilities of careers spent engaging with both creative and technological pursuits.

So with a new certainty (as much as you can have as a college senior) in the type of work I wanted to do post-graduation, I took on my computer science and art classes with new perspective and purpose. I tried to look at both fields through the lens of gaming and their impact on each other.

Despite being a terrible “noob” in the gamer world, I jumped in with vigor and tried to learn as much as I could from both a consumer and creator’s perspective. The first thing I started doing was comparing it to media I was much more familiar with like  literature, cinema and obviously visual arts, and I was a little dismayed at how little the video game world cared about or took the time to even think about games as art.

For the most part, the industry has been dominated by huge action, fantasy or sci-fi spectacles of violence and conquest. In most games, something or usually someone must be “killed” for you to beat the level and eventually the game. Whether its the stone walls of castles, the glint of the weapons or the gory spray of blood as you defeat yet another creature of some kind, each new game has tried (at least visually) to deceiving the player more successfully in the reality of the virtual worlds.The name of the game as far as art in video games has been making things as real as possible.

From an artistic perspective, I see it as a shame that such a potentially rich and complex way to produce art has been so visually and creatively un-evolved. So, playing Braid was very much a breath of fresh air. On a superficial level, the first thing you notice is the painterly quality of the aesthetic. There is no intention of hiding the fact that these rocks and that sky were painted with a brush, (a digital one perhaps but a tool of creation nonethless). There is much less  of an effort spent on concealing the process of creation. Which is the the first step towards a complex and challenging engagement of the viewer, the foundational endeavor in high art.

When you start to shake up the viewer’s sense of stable reality and you stop holding their hand, you can begin to engage them on even more conceptually and intellectually challenges. But the qualifications of Braid as art don’t stop there. The elegant prose, as well as the intentionally existential questions posed by the very structure of the puzzles and gameplay all push the boundaries needed to be considered an “art game.”

Released in 2008, it was one of the first to be used as proof that games could be art. Roger Ebert, an acclaimed film critic famously declared, “Video games can never be art” in 2010. The debate has had impassioned proponents on both sides since. Other games like Journey, Limbo and Gone Home have furthered the cause. As a hopeful game artist I am pleased that the case for games being considered as art seems to get stronger.

However, until now the question has been about whether games as art is possible. I can’t help but wonder if art as games is possible?

The current turmoil and revolution has so far taken place strictly in the confines of the gaming world and among the gaming community, but I wonder when the conflict will migrate into art territory and what it will look like.

There has already been a great deal of controversy over curators exhibiting existing games and game art in museums. The Museum of Modern Art has already collected 14 out of a 40 sized wish list of a video game exhibit. But most of this is a curation and categorization of games as art after the fact of creation. While there are up to hundreds of well trained and creatively sophisticated artists working on a single game, there has been very little game creation made the purpose of being solely art from the get go.

Games like Braid, begin to teasingly bend and play with the conventions . Nonetheless, I am excited the inevitable hullaboo raised when artists begin to completely take apart and throw away the expectations of what a video game should look and feel like. Its not a matter of if but when, and I will be eagerly in the front row seats to see how the drama plays out.

 —Diana Zhu